German town lures back Polish emigrants from Brexit Britain

With its dwindling population, Görlitz seeks to exploit an unexpected opportunity

Görlitz: Decades of renovation work have restored the city, spared the ravages of the second World War. Photograph: Werner Otto/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Görlitz: Decades of renovation work have restored the city, spared the ravages of the second World War. Photograph: Werner Otto/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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Görlitz is Germany’s easternmost city and its peripheral location, perched on the River Neisse bordering Poland, means it is no stranger to struggle. But the beautiful Saxon city is confident that others’ Brexit crises may prove to be their unique opportunity.

Together with its Polish partner city Zgorzelec, a pre-war district of the German settlement, Görlitz launched a Christmas campaign, sending gift parcels to Poles from the region and beyond in the UK who are uncertain about their future in Brexit Britain.

In the boxes they’ll find dried mushrooms, spiced cake and an offer from the city mayors to enjoy the best of both worlds in Görlitz-Zgorzelec: a UK standard of living in Germany, but with the comforts – and contacts – of being home in Poland.

Even before the gift boxes, the Görlitz campaign for returnees – with advertisements in British newspapers and a trilingual website – has already yielded results.

After living for 14 years in the UK, four under the Brexit cloud, Bartek and Anna Truch decided to make the leap back. The Polish couple have the classic immigrant story; he began working on building sites and graduated to travelling salesman; she worked in bank and an old age care home.

“We just started living our lives there, it really got comfortable,” said Anna, now the mother of two daughters. But the Brexit cloud drew closer and darker. When Bartek lost his job because of Brexit, the couple decided the time had come to return.

Anna and Bartek Truch and their daughters: The family decided to make the leap back after 14 years in the UK. Photograph: Paul Glaser
Anna and Bartek Truch and their daughters: The family decided to make the leap back after 14 years in the UK. Photograph: Paul Glaser

Now they are back in their home region but living on the western side of the Neisse River, in Görlitz.

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“I found a job straight away here, the girls go to school in Poland, having family nearby is a blessing and they’re loved and spoiled by everyone,” said Anna.

For Görlitz-Zgorzelec, the campaign is the latest chapter in a journey they began in 1998 as a self-declared, united “Europe City”. A further step to overcome wartime – and cold war – divisions came when a new pedestrian bridge linking the cities was opened ahead of Poland’s EU accession in 2004.

Decades of renovation work have restored the city, spared the ravages of the second World War, to a cobblestoned Baroque jewel box, beloved by Hollywood filmmakers seeking the perfect historic European backdrop.

But behind its freshly renovated facades, which attract 140,000 visitors in a regular year, Görlitz is an ageing city with a shrinking population.

With two deaths for every birth, companies willing to settle here struggle to find employees due to a growing skills shortage in all areas, from manufacturing and IT to the medical sector.

Child refugees

To attract new residents with spending power, Görlitz first reached out to city natives, who are now pensioners, in western Germany who fled as wartime child refugees. More recently the city has offered a one-month free residency programme for artists and creatives to consider Görlitz as their new base with modest costs.

The new campaign’s website – geared for all potential settlers, not just Poles – offers answers to questions about transferring a company and health insurance as well as information about finding a new home and school places.

It’s all part of an ongoing effort to attract new residents to the city, which has a population of 57,000 and shrinking, in particular to its 4,000-strong Polish community.

“People don’t decide to move with their family within a month, this isn’t about the short-term,” said Andrea Behr, managing director of the Görlitz-Zgorzelec city marketing authority.

“The pressure wasn’t too great so far but, as [post-transition] Brexit comes closer and people don’t know what will happen, I think there will be a jolt through the UK Polish community.”

Another new arrival in town is Izabela Jucha. She moved from her native Poland to the UK when she was 19 but, 16 years on, the 35 year-old decided with her partner not to wait for the Brexit “leap into the unknown”. The added uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, with tough travel restrictions, concentrated their minds.

“I spoke to a lot of other Poles and the uncertainty over what happens after Brexit is really big,” said Izabela. She saw a better future for her 14-year-old daughter in Görlitz, seeing family and attending the local German school.

“We wanted that our daughter gets to know her grandparents, who live here. The education system here is very good, and free.”

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